Dallas — Bishop Arts Theatre Center (formerly TeCo Theatrical Productions) has brought back its Third Annual PlayPride LGBT Competition, and this year it is a little different. First, the playwrights are competing for a chance to win $1,000 in cash and prizes, based on votes from the audience. The results will be tallied and announced on closing night. In the first two years money was donated to an LGBT charity.
This year’s batch features works by six finalists, all Texas playwrights: Ruth Cantrell, Caroline Turner Cole, Addison DeWitt, Sierra McCarley, Ben Schroth and Shane Strawbridge. The works are about contemporary issues piercing the LGBT community.
The other big change is that this year there is one director for all six works. Alexandra Bonifield manages the festival’s emotional current through the lineup, adding more cohesion than in years past. There is an evenness across the casts that helps to establish a connectedness among the pieces. No weak performances here.
Copeville by Addison DeWitt is set during 1969 in Copeville, Texas, an actual small town in Collin County. The narrator (Averie Bell) relays the story of general store owner Berdie (Jovane Caamana), a kind-hearted gentleman who never met a customer he did not help. Woman customer (Kelly Thomas) and male customer (Chris Rothbauer) give testimonials to the goodness and generosity of Berdie during their times of need. Berdie eventually shares the Crow legend of the “two-spirit people” whose lives have been braided together. This story is informed by real people and events from the playwright’s maternal grandfather’s grocery store. This is a gentle story that is well-placed at the beginning of the program. Bonifield’s direction makes this piece appear stronger.
Ben Schroth’s Did You Hear That? is a dark comedy about perceptions and assumptions. Charles (Caleb J. Pieterse) and Daniel (Andrew Aguilar) have recently relocated to a different multi-family dwelling in a different neighborhood. They moved because the original neighborhood was changing. The move seems to have been pushed by Daniel. Charles is of the opinion that there was nothing wrong with the old neighborhood. They are relaxing when suddenly Daniel hears noises. Charles does not hear the noises. Daniel runs around the room intensely focused on listening to the voices which he decides are terrorist noises. The rest of the play highlights in a comedic way the conflict sometimes present between a couple with different perceptions about people. The thesis of this piece is a little too obvious and while there are funny moments, it is not rib-tickling.
The virtual world of technology is actually the setting for Caroline Cole’s Honestly. Jillian (Taylor Donnelson), Tori (Averie Bell) and Catsnotcancer (Leslie) respond to the pleas of young blogger Georgia (Kennedy Styron). Georgia, a young Croatian blogger, is battling an array of illnesses that include HIV. The other young women form a virtual support network for her. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the image presented virtually does not necessarily match the actual person. Jillian, Tori and Catsnotcancer question whether they ever knew Georgia at all. This play has the most interesting premise, drawing from modern day interconnectedness via social platforms. The dialogue is overlapping yet clear. Bonifield’s staging is suggestive of a pictorial mosaic that pops in on search engine sites. Structurally, this is a strong piece. It would be exciting to see it as part of a trilogy, to see what that might look like.
Stall Tactics is a two-character piece by Ruth Cantrell. Mattie Lou (Kelly Thomas) has appointed herself the spokesperson for the “I know what I know” people by blocking entry to the transgender restrooms at a local department store. Mattie Lou enters from the back of the house and issues propaganda items to members of the audience during her approach to the stage. Bev approaches, intent upon using the restroom but Mattie Lou will aggressively blocks the entrances while shouting warnings about the degenerates and “lesbyterians” that might be loitering inside. Now this is laugh-out-loud funny though the subject is not. The conflict becomes who will win—will Mattie Lou successfully redirect Bev to another store, or will Bev finagle a way to use the restroom in front of her. A strong showing by Cantrell.
In Sierra McCarley’s If Fate Steps In, Avery (Taylor Donnelson) plays matchmaker for a friend. Jude (Chris Rothbauer), Emerson (DR Mann Hanson) and Nate (Jorge Montejo) are living in a world where everyone is born with initials on their wrists. The initials match those of their one true soulmate, who Avery is convinced that everyone is supposed to find. The choice for the blind date couple becomes whether to trust the chemistry between them, or to check and rely upon the wrist initials. This is another play set in the future, but it feels unfinished, as if there is something forgotten about to explore.
Widgets by Shane Strawbridge pits Qual (Caleb J. Pieterse) and Prod (Andrew Aguilar) in a disagreement over process and procedure regarding widgets in the workplace. Chair (Dayna Fries) is the manager that tries to arbitrate their dispute. Her intervention is interrupted by her daughter, Kid (Leslie Mendez). Prod is infuriated because Qual has changed the way widgets are organized. It is a battle between change, and resistance. For Qual, a change in how the widgets are perceived and ordered will result in chaos. For Andrew, the resistance to change is outdated and inefficient by comparison. There is a lesson here and it is clear, but unforced. In Widgets we have clean, uncluttered and precise writing. Strawbridge is not confused about his characters.
The readers for the play selection part of the process were Meg Friedman, Brent Englar, John Gershick, Tony Montenieri, and Kim Stinson. They have selected works that are provocative and appealing. The pieces that work best are Honestly, Small Tactics and Widgets.